Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Bias in the New York Times?

Several days ago, an Op-Ed appeared in the New York Times asking the question, "Did Blacks Really Endorse the 1994 Crime Bill?"  They claim that Hillary Clinton is suffering from selective perception of history.  They present her argument as follows:

"When confronted about her husband’s pivotal support for the [1994 crime] bill, Hillary Clinton argued, even as she admitted the legislation’s shortcomings, that the bill was a response to “great demand, not just from America writ large, but from the black community, to get tougher on crime.”
However, Clinton was not presenting her own argument with those words. She was paraphrasing something said to her by Al Sharpton. The full Clinton quote is from a Buzzfeed interview:
 "I was interviewed by Al Sharpton the other day, and I’ve known him a long time, because I represented New York, and he said, and I think it’s good to be reminded of this, that in the ‘90s, and particularly when my husband became president, there was a great demand, not just from America at large, but from the black community, to get tougher on crime."
The NYT Op-Ed presents the paraphrase of Al Sharpton's argument as if it were Clinton's, and fails to even mention Sharpton at all. That is odd.  As an influential voice for Black America (then and now) who has made some pointed criticisms of the 1994 crime bill, Al Sharpton's perception is a valuable addition to the debate. It is hard to see why the authors would not mention him, unless their goal was to tarnish Hillary Clinton's reputation and injure her relationship with voters by making her seem more racist than she may actually be.  In any case, it is highly questionable journalism, and the fact that the NYT editorial board did not catch it (or caught it but did not correct it) is also suspicious.

The context was this: Hillary was asked about her and her husband's responsibility for the currently broken state of criminal justice. She pointed out that her husband has already taken responsibility for the bill, emphasizing that they were doing their best to respond to a need from the American people, including African-Americans. Nothing in the NYT article shows that she was wrong.

Indeed, even though there were many objections to the overly punitive aspects of the bill, and even though it was not an easy sell for some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, it was ultimately endorsed because it was the best crime bill they could get and because most legislators (including members of the CBC) did not want to be seen as soft on crime.  The NYT Op-Ed emphasizes the widespread criticism of the bill within black communities in general, and the CBC in particular. That is fair.  However, the answer to the NYT Op-Ed's question is, Yes, blacks really endorsed the crime bill, though there were major reservations and some compromises.

The point, perhaps, is that the whole story was complicated, and sensitivity to the historical facts is needed.  This does not disprove the point Clinton (following Al Sharpton) made. It only shows that her point was not enough, if you want to fully understand the history of the bill. That is a fair observation, generally speaking, but there are two curious questions I am left with.  First, considering that Joe Biden actually wrote the 1994 crime bill and introduced it to the Senate, why is he not playing a bigger role in this debate? As he is the Vice President in the administration of the first African-American President, you would think more people would be pressing him for comments. Compared to Biden, the heat Hillary Clinton is getting is extreme. considering that she was not involved in the passing of the bill at all (she was focusing on trying to get universal health care in 1994). She is only indirectly implicated in the matter because she was First Lady and because of brief comments she made in support of the bill years later. The second quetion, then, is: Why is it considered appropriate to hold her ultimately responsible, and use that as an excuse to interfere with her campaign?

If Hillary is directly responsible for anything, it the use of dehumanizing rhetoric about bringing "super-predators . . . to heel" in 1996.  That might have promoted systemic racism in the implementation of the crime bill, even though her words were presumably not intended to have such an effect.  Indeed, it would be outlandish to suggest that Hillary intentionally used racist, dehumanizing language. For one thing, Hillary Clinton is not stupid. Why would she intentionally make racist comments against African-Americans, a significant portion of her husband's voter base?  And in an election year, no less? As it turns out, in the months following Hillary's comment, Bill Clinton benefited from enormous support from African-American voters in his re-election campaign.   There was no public outcry against her rhetoric at the time. Indeed, the term "super-predator" was not widely thought to be racist until much later.

Fortunately, Hillary Clinton does not stand by the language she used in 1996. Clinton has evolved, yet, like everybody else, she is most certainly capable of bias when it comes to racial issues.  It would be absurd to suggest otherwise. I think she would be the first to admit it, too. There is no need for a NYT Op-Ed to prove that.

The NYT piece ends by emphasizing that the voices of the oppressed must be heard. Without qualification, I appreciate the need for Black Lives Matter and other protesters to continue to demand more awareness of historical and cultural issues.  Hillary says she is paying attention and wants to listen. I think we should take her at her word.